The Japanese tea ceremony is an experiential moment of aesthetics and ethics of the everyday, a harmony between objects, beings, places, and practices. It underlines that everyday objects, heart of our material culture, exhibit a profound beauty, uphold a remarkable ethics, and yet go unnoticed. At the crossing of a reflection on a Japanese approach on design through the study of kansei, and a reflection on design in HCI based on embodiment theories, this research inquires first the western cultural hegemony of design in HCI, and second sets a cultural decentration of the discipline taking Japanese philosophy and culture as theory. This results in a novel perspective on design and designing, supported by an ethics of relation, an experience of thusness, and an aesthetics of irregularities. This perspective invites design to enchant the everyday, enabling to consider details of reality as it is lived, and to create unexpected moments, source of surprises and new possible outcomes. Therefore, inviting to culturally decentre design, this research suggests an original approach to design for the everyday, and contributes to find in it a major esthetical and ethical source, towards human development, as well as one’s sensitivity, and one’s values.

Le temps de l’expérience, enchanter le quotidien par le design

Lévy, P. (2018). Le temps de l'expérience, Enchanter le quotidien par le design. Compiègne University of Technology, France


Transcription of my defense for Habilitation

I would like to thank you for being here today.

I am very happy and honoured to be able to defend my HDR at the Compiègne University of Technology, for several reasons.

First of all, because UTC has put Technologies and Human Sciences at the centre of its pedagogical project in engineering, and has dedicated one of its educational programme to industrial design. A vision in which I find myself completely.
Also because it was at UTC that I started my studies and obtained my engineering degree in 2001.
It was also through UTC that I set foot in Japan, through my final year project by becoming head of innovation for Decathlon in Japan.
It was also at UTC that I was introduced to research, under the supervision of Anne Guénand.
It was also at UTC that I first met Prof. Yamanaka in 2002, and I had the honour of having him become my thesis director during my doctoral thesis at the University of Tsukuba in Kansei Science obtained in 2006.
It was also at UTC that I first met Prof. Overbeeke, from the Eindhoven University of Technology, in 2003. During my visits to Europe, I never stopped visiting UTC and TU/e, immersing myself in a reflection on design and theories related to embodiment. And in 2009, I had the honour of becoming an assistant professor at TU/e in the Designing Quality in Interaction research group then headed by Prof. Overbeeke.
Later, once settled in TU/e, collaborations continued with UTC, particularly on the subjects of cross perception and sensory substitution with Prof. Lenay.

It is therefore in a form of continuity that I am happy to support my HDR today.


My presentation is structured in four parts.

I will first explain my approach to research through design, an approach that structures my activity.

I will then present what I call my Japanese experience, which comes from my experience in Japan and my reflections on Japan, which has been decisive for a turning point in my perspective on design.

It is this turning point that I will then explain, as well as what it has led to in my research.

And finally, I will explain the consequences of this turning point for design, and in particular about everyday life rituals.

Research through design

Design research invites the participation of the designer’s skills and attitude in the research activity. The participation of design in the research activity is relevant if it is accompanied by a reflection associated with the action, allowing the creation of knowledge.

This research, linking action and reflection, is based on reflection in action and on action proposed by Schön (1983).
This approach is also in line with embodiment related theories, brilliantly brought to design by Dourish (2001).

The research through the design I conduct is mainly structured on two elements:

  • Constructive design research, which invites experimentations with devices designed for research. Research-through-Design (Koskinen et al., 2012) is a major marker.
  • The development of the annotated portfolio research tool proposed by Bill Gaver (2012), which structures an analysis of a corpus of artefacts either designed as part of the research project or external to it.

The role of the prototype is central to this approach, but changes in nature compared to what is traditionally considered in design: it is not a first model, close to what will be produced in series, but what Frens (2006) calls a physical hypothesis, and Hengeveld (2011) an experiential hypothesis, a very eloquent barbarism which I think corresponds entirely to the role of the prototype.

Finally, this approach also requires a project so that design can act and contribute to research. In Sennett’s words and adapting them to design, Hummels describes this request to localize the research question, which can then be followed by a reflection in action allowing it to be questioned, and a reflection on action to inquire the research question a fortiori, beyond the project itself.

This is my approach to design research.

Japanese experience

Before becoming an assistant professor at the Eindhoven University of Technology, I spent about 9 years in Japan, mainly affiliated with the University of Tsukuba, at the Kansei Information Science Laboratory, directed by Prof. Yamanaka, who was also my thesis director during my doctoral studies.

The study of Kansei has been for me a guiding principle that allowed me to progress on two fundamental subjects in my research:

  • A deepening of my interest in the affective relationship to the lived world, which gradually led me to also become interested in notions related to embodiment.
  • A personal and intellectual curiosity for the Japanese culture, and for what it reveals about the beauty of the everyday.

Concretisation of the beautiful

In particular, I have been interested in the Way of Tea, which Okakura (1906) describes in his famous book The Book of Tea as the cult of the beautiful of the ordinary in the everyday. And I have been especially interested in the Japanese tea ceremony, which is a ritualized experience of the Way of Tea, established by Rikyu in the 16th century.

To illustrate what I saw there, I would like to take the example of a short moment during the ceremony, illustrated by the photo you see here. Once the light tea has been served, the main guest asks the host if he or she could view objects used for tea. The host then introduces him to the chashaku and the chaire, the chashaku being the small spatula to take tea out of the chaire, which is the tea container. The chaire diameter is about one third the length of chashaku. The host places the chashaku two mats apart from the edge of the tatami in front of the main guest, and aligns the centre of the chaire with the centre of the chashaku. Once the host has withdrawn into the water room, i.e., the kitchen, the guest approaches the two objects so that his knees are two mats from the chashaku. Sitting in seiza, he will then be able to comfortably manipulate and contemplate the two objects presented to him, in a culturally Japanese comfort.

What impressed me here is that Rikyu has made an aesthetic proposition towards harmony that corresponds to a system of values (not aimed at effectiveness or efficiency), with aesthetic, ethical and social concerns, and that enables the realization of beauty.

The tea ceremony as a design

This led me to consider that Rikyu (1522-1591) transformed a proposal of values, those of Buddhism and the Wabi etiquette of his time, into a situated system of artefacts, social actors, and signs enabling an engaged and social experience of these values.

This transformation is based on the development of the technology of his time in response to a social expectation of his time. This system is an aesthetic proposal.

The idea that the formalization of the Japanese tea ceremony responds to a “social expectation of its time” already invites us to rethink the ritual not as a fixed repetition of a sequence of actions, but as a practice of daily life re-interpretable in a time and place.

Moreover, the realization of an aesthetic proposal enables the perspective of this aesthetic proposal by Japanese thought, and opens on the notions of contexture and temporality of the daily experience, notions that we will question later.

Mujirushi ryohin

This aesthetic proposal is still found in contemporary design, as for example in mujirushi ryohin, better known simply as muji. If we analyse what has been written about the brand, as well as what the main actors who have participated in the development of the brand and design – notably Kenya Hara and Naoto Fukasawa – have explained about muji’s philosophy and vision, we find most often three key concepts that characterise muji’s design and seem to be in line with the values embodied by the Japanese tea ceremony:

  • The simple invites to consider what is obvious or essential, stripped of all superfluity.
  • The ordinary focuses on what appears classic or usual, and useful for everyday life. It also invites to consider habitability, a concept dear to Alain Findeli.
  • Finally, the void concerns a space of possibilities left open by the design, to be filled by the user (or interactant) with the artifact, in order to adapt the value proposal to one’s place and time within one’s daily life.

The aesthetic proposal proposed by Rikyu is reflected in a contemporary design, that of muji.

Turning point

From this observation on tea, and by observing a corpus of artefacts from the work of contemporary Japanese designers, this aesthetic proposal aiming at a form of harmony between values, bodies, gestures, etc. has caused a turning point in my view on design.

Looking at the Japanese tea ceremony through the lens of design, I saw the tea ceremony as prototypical of design based on Japanese culture, which has deeply shaken my perspective on design.

So I turned the lens over and looked at design through the lens of the tea ceremony, and saw a lack of a theoretical framework for design to explain the tea ceremony. And this absence gave way to a gap to be filled by a cultural decentration of design.

This decentration invites us to redefine the ritual not as an identical repetition of a sequence of actions, but as an aesthetic proposal that allows us to be reconsidered every time in our daily lives.

It also appears that the ritual is both social and singular, and always reinterpretable by those who propose it, the designers, and those who live it.

Design is therefore questioned in the light of the ritual, and the ritual is questioned through design.

Japanese philosophy and culture

To achieve this decentration, I studied Japanese philosophy and culture. Although I do not have time here to present the details of this study, I list here the main topics on which my attention has been focused:

  • Watsuji’s ethics on relationship, published in 1934;
  • Nishida’s philosophy (and a little more generally of the Kyoto School) on experience, whose main work was published in 1911;
  • The writings of Dōgen on time, dating from the 13th century;
  • And the work on the Buddhist idea of beauty proposed by Yanagi and published more recently in 1972.

Framework for design

From this study, it results that the aesthetic proposal of the Japanese perspective studied here is based on two notions on which design can act:

  • Thusness, or suchness, which proposes to look beyond human-machine interaction, considering a maximum of elements that constitute the lived world, as well as their relationships and the global harmony. Therefore, it suggests a method that takes the lived world as a starting point, and not the human-machine relationship as it is traditionally done, and aims to a harmonious integration of the designed artefact.
  • Irregularity offers an ethical vision for the design of everyday life. It does not aim for a form of perfection – very often considered in industrial design – but goes beyond it by presenting itself as a source of freedom and opening up fields of possibilities through interaction.

The two photos shown on the left of the screen are, at the top, an embroidered pattern designed by Akira Minagawa in 2005, and at the bottom a set of chasen handles (the whisk used to mix tea during the ceremony) 3D-printed during Shigeru Yamada’s master project that I supervised in 2016.

The irregularity shown in Minagawa’s design is made through a large number of embroidery stitches intended to be made at the same place, so that the machine can no longer make the stitch because of too high thread density. This causes the needle to twist to continue making the required stitch. This results in one or more embroidery stitches being made in an unplanned location, and therefore in an irregularity.

The chasen handles were based on a parametric design (the shape is described by a mathematical formula). The six models were produced at different printing speeds. From right to left, the first print was made at the standard machine speed, as indicated by the machine manufacturer, then 2, 3, 4 and 6 times faster. When we showed these chasen handles to a group of tea masters, considered experts in this experiment. The second was significantly more appreciated. This chasen handle has both a possibility to be used properly, and also a subtle irregularity that makes the object beautiful. We see in this experiment that irregularity is perceived as beautiful.

The contexture of everyday life

What thusness and irregularity enabled is to reopen the question of everyday life, and in particular the rituals of everyday life. We question here what people feel in their daily lives, especially in terms of aesthetics. The everyday ritual is precisely an interesting moment for design as it gives everyday practices a space for attention.

However, the idea of an aesthetic proposal that was discussed earlier brings us to an aesthetic view of the experience in the here-and-now, and therefore to what I call a contexture.

In this space (or moment) of attention that is the ritual, there is a texture, i.e., an inquiry on form by the organization of space, by the choice of objects, of gestures and practices… This texture is concretized by the ritual. Therefore, our approach questions the contexture delivered by the aesthetic proposal of the ritual and aims at a balance that allows a form of harmony.

Moreover, the ritual includes aspects that are social and singular. To understand it, it is therefore necessary to question it both on its social and singular aspects. To capture the singular, for about two years I have been asking my students, who have sufficient skills to make small films of this nature, to do one on one of their own daily rituals. These films are then viewed, discussed and analysed. This is one method, among others, to capture elements of the complex, intimate and implicit experience of everyday life, which are singular and aim at harmony within this experience.

The temporality of everyday life

I also conducted another experiment to explore a daily ritual, which was based on my personal morning hot chocolate. This experiment has shown that the question of the contexture, enabling to approach the aesthetic proposal, also questions our temporal values, most often in opposition to efficiency that often imposes itself on any question of temporality, especially in industrial design and interaction design.
This raises the question of the time values that are given to these everyday experiences.

How can the temporality of the ritual be characterized, for example differently from the flow theory, proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, also aiming at efficiency? We are aiming here at an aesthetic proposal that questions temporality, that invites us to take time: in this proposal, what values stopping to listen to music, contemplating a landscape, etc. This is another major issue addressed by this research program.

Enchanting everyday life through design

My research is therefore a design research, based on the contexture, a questioning of the temporal value, and a structured theoretical framework on thusness and irregularity.

The aim is to use the questions of contexture and temporality to invite the composition of a daily experience. And I like to borrow Bart Hengeveld’s words, who compares such a composition to that of music.

This is done in resistance to the Western culture of industrial design, which focuses almost exclusively on efficiency and effectiveness, and which seems to resist questioning emotion and irregularity. The Design&Emotion Society, established about a dozen years ago and mainly led by the Department of Industrial Design at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, which first worked well, and is currently in standby to discuss and to understand why it didn’t work so well in the end. I hope that this research brings an original perspective to this discussion.

Irregularity is at the heart of the approach. The irregularity enables an absence of fence, avoids a design that would aim at a controlled behaviour by an optimization of the means for a predetermined goal. It contributes to a better understanding of design, and to suggest an epistemology of design on the fact that a totally predictable and regulating system – whether social, cultural or technical – prevents invention or transformation.

Therefore, irregularity prevents us from falling into the trap of industrial production aiming at perfection and infinite reproduction, and enhances the idea of surprise, accident, openness to possibilities, both in the design and manufacturing processes and in the results.

And this research program aims to enchant everyday life through design.

One last thought

This brings me to a final reflection on this research program.

The opening made by my inquiry on the Japanese tea ceremony through design proposes something different to design. It questions the subject and the place of design research afresh, as it raises the question of everyday rituals.

Design research must be reappropriated by a design that is close to the thinking of Art&Craft and the decorative arts, i.e., by a thought that focuses on the arts of living, and that reflects aesthetic values and proposals for balance in the sensitive experience. This ambition to propose balances has rather been forgotten in current design research – and I am referring here to the research communities to which I belong, especially SIGCHI and DRS – which comes rather from industrial design and aims at a form of perfection, i. e., to an end of any reinterpretation.

The objective of design must be to propose aesthetic arrangements aimed at proposals for harmony between artefacts, spaces, gestures, values, etc., and not exclusively to promote effectiveness and efficiency, yet a dominant effort in contemporary design research and particularly in technological education places.

Therefore, I see this research as a form of resistance to functionalism, so well established in the culture of design research, inspired by industrial design.

What is important for such a design is the enchantment of everyday life, that is, an attention to a harmonious aesthetic arrangement made visible by the contexture: questioning again norms that are no longer visible by design, seeking an overall aesthetic balance in everyday life that allows the experience of beauty.

Thank you very much.